Elections 2020FederalProgressives Seek to Unseat Blue-Dog Democrat Incumbent Henry Cuellar

The primary between incumbent Rep. Henry Cuellar and challenger Jessica Cisneros may serve as a bellwether for the direction of the Democratic Party.
February 17, 2020
After the 2018 “blue wave,” Texas has been the focus of many media narratives as a developing swing state. There are currently 36 congressional districts in Texas (with new ones expected after the 2020 Census). Currently, 23 districts are held by Republicans and 13 districts are held by Democrats.

Most political observers are focused on November “swing districts” such as TX-07, TX-21, TX-23, and TX-24.

And for those paying attention to the upcoming primaries, most of the high-profile races fall within the Republican Party. However, one Texas district illustrates the broader conflict permeating through the Democratic Party at the national level. That district is the 28th Congressional District, currently held by eight-term Congressman Henry Cuellar (D-TX-28).

At the national level, the Democratic Party is trending decidedly leftward — as evidenced by its tentative presidential frontrunner and high-profile congressional personalities fully embracing the label and policies of “democratic” socialism. And sensing ascendancy, the progressive wing of the Democratic Party sees 2020 as an opportunity to cement their hold on the party. 

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Congressman Cuellar has drawn a challenge from his left by Jessica Cisneros — a human rights lawyer from Laredo. Backed by Justice Democrats — the same progressive group that helped elect socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) in 2018 — Cisneros hopes to imitate Ocasio-Cortez’s success by defeating a more moderate incumbent with House leadership ties.


Cuellar sits on the House Appropriations Committee and is backed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). He is also supported by “over 100” local figures and organizations such as law enforcement and firefighter associations, as well as the Texas Farm Bureau.

Meanwhile, Cisneros has been endorsed by a bevy of progressive figures including 2020 presidential candidates Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro; as well as organizations such as the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), Texas AFL-CIO, EMILY’s List, and Planned Parenthood.

Policy Positions

The two candidates are about as different as can be while still maintaining Democratic Party membership.

On one side is Cuellar, one of the last congressional pro-life Democrats who played a significant part in the passage of the USMCA.

Cuellar has criticized Cisneros for being far left on abortion, including running an ad knocking his opponent for “[wanting to allow] minors to have an abortion without parent’s knowledge.” Cisneros’ campaign called the claim a “false, Trump-style attack.”

Cisneros, meanwhile, has attacked Cuellar for not supporting socialized medicine schemes like Medicare-for-All and for allegedly voting with President Trump 70 percent of the time.

Democratic primary candidate Jessica Cisneros.

In addition to “Medicare for All,” Cisneros supports the laundry list of progressive hobby-horse issues such as the Green New Deal (which includes, but is not limited to, banning fracking and the exportation of crude oil), raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour, a federally-mandated paid parental leave program, expanding Social Security entitlements, eliminating student debt and instituting tuition-free public universities, and passing an equal rights amendment.

Her most-recent big endorsement, Julián Castro, left his mark on the presidential race when he announced his support for decriminalizing illegal immigration. The field was divided over the issue — even creating a point of contention between Castro and fellow Texan Beto O’Rourke in the first debate — and numerous other candidates followed Castro’s lead and adopted the position as well.

The Texan reached out to Cisneros’ campaign for her position on the issue, but they did not reply by this article’s publishing.

Cuellar, for his part, is against the Green New Deal and “Medicare for All.” His stated campaign priorities include preventing border wall construction, “increasing access to health care and lowering prescription drug prices,” and preventing large federally-driven overhauls of the economy that he believes would raise taxes on the middle class and cause significant job-loss.

The Green New Deal is projected to cost up to $93 trillion dollars and conservative estimates show “Medicare for All” costing about $34 trillion.

At an August Texas Oil and Gas Association roundtable, Cuellar broke from the progressive left of his party by voicing his disapproval of the Green New Deal. Energy is a significant focus for Cuellar, telling the crowd he believes the logistical part of the energy sector, especially, needs updating. He wants to invest in pipelines, railroads, and other structures so energy can be stored and delivered to meet consumer demand.

Despite his opposition to “Medicare for All,” Cuellar is no free market healthcare advocate — touting his support for Obamacare and his role in establishing Texas’ Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) in a campaign video.

In addition to his position on healthcare, Cisneros has attacked Cuellar for voting “to defund sanctuary cities” and for voting for the federal money used on abortions ban.

In 2016, the district overwhelmingly voted for Hillary Clinton by 20 points. Former President Barack Obama won the district by 20 and 17 points in 2012 and 2008, respectively.


Cuellar has amassed a nearly $3 million war chest as of the latest filing period. Cisneros, for her part, raised just under $1 million last quarter and spent about a third of it. Heading into the home stretch of the primary, she has about $600,000 to spend.

However, Cisneros has received lots of outside support from progressive organizations.

In fact, as the Texas Tribune’s Patrick Svitek reported, a coalition of progressive organizations — the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Texas Organizing Project, Communications Workers of America, and the Working Families Party — announced a $350,000 independent expenditure supporting Cisneros. That money will go towards canvassing, digital and radio ads, and direct mail.

Both sides have been critical of their opponent’s fundraising with Cuellar being criticized for “take[ing] money from corporate donors” and Cisneros for “benefiting from dark money.”

While having been comfortably re-elected since 2004, Cuellar is no stranger to a knock-down-drag-out primary. He knocked off then-incumbent Ciro Rodriguez by a slim 58 votes. This time around, Cuellar is the seasoned incumbent hoping to fend off the young, ambitious challenger he once was.

The 28th Congressional District race is an intra-party proxy war within a state looked at by many to be the battleground for an inter-party proxy war over the shape of the national political landscape.

Among the competing factions within the Democratic Party, progressives hope to continue to build upon their leftward pull of the party in 2018 while the Democratic establishment has arguably the far less envious task of standing athwart radical change driven by the youth in their party.


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Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.